Monday, December 28, 2015

The Truth About "Star Wars"

The new Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens," which I saw this past weekend, is a reminder that the originals were never quite as good as they're viewed in retrospect.

What were they? Pure entertainment combined with a large amount of nonsense. Good old-fashioned American hokum, in other words.

The genius of George Lucas was to combine every stray cultural influence he could find-- from "El Cid" swordfights and bad guys, to comedic sidekicks straight from the novel Ivanhoe, to the sandy vistas of Arabia, and exotic ethnicities strange to his Southern California upbringing, to the clich├ęs of "B" movies, including those of the kung fu variety-- and set this mix in a faraway galaxy, which gave complete freedom to his desire to mesh these many influences into a single entity.

Ideas? There are no ideas in the Star Wars movies, only pseudo-mythology, mumbo-jumbo paganism, and a medieval style. In that sense it's akin to the operas of Richard Wagner. As with Wagner, the music, the sets and costumes, and the posturing ARE the point. All else are rationalizations for the rubes; reasons for people to buy the tickets and attached products.

Don't get me wrong. The movies have a lot going for them. The original "Star Wars" was a revolutionary film. It transformed the movie art, by relying most on those elements essential to the art. While it was a lot of silliness, it also had awesome music (triumphalist in the Wagnerian style), fast pace, thrilling special effects, and brilliant editing. It was joyously fun to watch. The movie was immensely influential. The hundreds of action-adventure flicks that followed borrowed its elements. As a result, the latest sequel could never have the impact of the original, given the changed context.

The Star Wars phenomenon began as P.T. Barnum hokum and morphed quickly into all-out P.T. Barnum ballyhoo-- seen with the latest incarnation. "The Force Awakens" is the most thoroughly marketed and merchandised movie ever. With the Disney empire now producing the series, the entire enormous American media publicity machine was geared up to promote the flick. The movie business itself, and all attached outlets and critics-- theaters, magazines, were dependent on the movie's success. The project is the epitome of Disney calculation and hype. Far in advance it was sold, both subliminally and specifically, as the apex of motion picture achievement. The full eventual payoff will be in the many billions of dollars earned by everybody associated with the product.

Did this lead to a low-risk creative strategy for the film itself? Stay tuned for Part II of this essay, which will include my fully honest review of "The Force Awakens."

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